When everything left on your to-do list still feels important, how do you keep it from becoming a breeding ground for overwhelm and decision paralysis?
The To-Do List Paradox
To-do lists are supposed to help you focus and know what to do next.
Yet the paradoxical truth of modern to-do lists is that they’re often the source of overwhelm, possibility paralysis, and scattered focus, leading to a lack of results.
Why? Well, there’s a reason we call it a to do list, and not a could do list.
The more your to-do list becomes a dumping ground for possibilities, the less useful it becomes as a place for you to see what to do.
And the less clear you are about what to do when you use your to do list, the more the list will leave you feeling overwhelmed, stuck in decision paralysis, and frustrated by a lack of results stemming from chronically scattered efforts.
You don’t want to stop writing down your to-do ideas… but you DO want to focus effectively and get things done. What’s the solution?
The Answer: the Locus of Focus
A Locus of Focus is a particular project, intention, or direction.
For example, any of the following could be used as a Locus of Focus:
- Create new after-sales process for Product X
- Reach out to possible podcast guests
- Complete first draft of new website copy
- Improve conversion rate on salespage for flagship service
How does the Locus of Focus help end to-do list overwhelm and decision paralysis?
Instead of looking at your entire to-do list as one boundless realm of equally valid possible actions, each Locus of Focus narrows down which actions are within your scope at this time.
For example, let’s imagine you’ve selected one of the items above as a Locus of Focus for this month: Reach out to possible podcast guests. When you come to items on your to do list, you ask yourself: “Does this item directly further my efforts to reach out to possible podcast guests?”
If the answer is yes, then that item fits within your Locus of Focus. If the answer is no, then that item does not fit within your Locus of Focus.
The LoF litmus test avoids overwhelm and decision paralysis by immediately narrowing your field of possibilities.
Each Locus of Focus (or LoF for short) is a litmus test for to-do items.
Instead of sorting through a heap of items that all feel relatively equal in importance, with the LoF you determine quickly whether an item is or is not within your scope this month.
Deciding whether or not to include an item on your list for the month doesn't require any emotional wrangling or weighing of pros and cons. It's a yes or no, based on your “litmus test.”
Instead of spending time and headspace figuring out what to do, you devote your resources to actually doing the items that help you make consistent progress on the areas you’ve determined are important.
How does the Locus of Focus address the lack of results that comes from scattered effort?
To answer this, let's ask a different question first: Why not pursue as many different projects, intentions, and directions as possible?
If your time, attention, money, and energy were infinite, you could.
Finite resources require focused action to produce positive results.
Imagine you have a limited amount of seeds, water, fertilizer, time, and energy. You could try to plant a hundred sparse gardens, undernourish them, and wear yourself out running between them trying to keep up with their care, all the while never yielding one single full harvest.
Or you could focus your resources on one or two gardens, nourish them well, provide plenty of care and attention, and have the time and energy to enjoy the harvest they yield.
Scattering your time, attention, money, and energy across dozens of directions, projects, and intentions, deprives all of them of the resources they need to come to fruition.
Should you only have 1 Locus of Focus at a time? How long should it last?
What usually works best is setting 1-3 LoFs per month.
At the end of each month:
- review your progress from the prior month,
- review your Long Range To-Do List (more on that in a bit),
- determine what matters most to your business and your goals in the coming month, and
- set your next set of LoFs.
Setting your LoFs by the month usually works well, but you could do it by the quarter if you preferred.
Going shorter than a month is not recommended. You’ll be likely to change your Locus of Focus too frequently, and you’ll wind up being scattered.
Going longer than a quarter is not recommended. You’ll set LoFs that are too broad to fill up the big time chunks, and those overly broad LoFs encompass too many possible actions. You’ll wind up with the same problems as not having any Locus of Focus at all.
What if you don’t complete a Locus of Focus in that month?
When you review your progress at the end of the month, you decide what you want to focus on in the next month.
The next month’s focus might include some of the same LoFs from the prior month.
Or you may decide to refine, narrow, or tweak a prior Locus of Focus, and use the “evolved” version as a new LoF.
Any of the above is fine.
How is a Locus of Focus different than a SMART goal?
A SMART goal and a Locus of Focus serve different purposes.
The SMART goal defines a specific result you want to accomplish and sets the finish line by which you’ll know you’ve accomplished it.
The Locus of Focus acts as a litmus test for determining whether possible to-do items should be done now or held for later.
- Locus of Focus = Increase my podcast subscribers
- SMART goal = Increase my podcast subscribers by 20% by the end of next quarter
Tip: Your SMART goals can often double as your LoFs.
What happens to other to-do items that need to be done but don’t fit into a Locus of Focus?
All to-do items fall into two categories:
- Needs To Be Done
- Could Be Done [but doesn’t need to be done]
Items that belong in the first category — Needs To Be Done — are those that need to be done regardless what LoFs you’ve chosen.
Examples of “Needs To Be Done” items might be: Responding to client emails, paying estimated taxes each quarter, keeping your website theme and plugins updated, or troubleshooting a broken email campaign that stops working unexpectedly.
Doesn’t really matter what you’ve selected as your LoFs for the month — those things still Need To Be Done.
Those? You do them. They need to be done.
But the Need To Be Done to-do items are not the source of scattered focus and to-do list decision paralysis.
The root of scattered focus and decision paralysis (and the ensuing lack of progress) stems from the items in the second category:
That plethora of things you could do, but don’t need to do.
Your Locus of Focus is your gatekeeper against being overrun by the category 2 items.
Once you’ve selected your LoFs for the month, when a new item comes up that you could do, you check it against your LoFs.
Does that item that you could do DIRECTLY further your progress toward one of your selected LoFs?
If the answer is yes, then put that item on your current to-do list under its corresponding LoF.
If the answer is no, the item goes on your Long Range To-Do List.
What is your Long Range To-Do List?
Your Long Range To-Do List is where you put all of your to-do items that you could do, but don’t directly further your progress toward your selected LoFs.
The Long Range To-Do List ensures that nothing is “lost,” even if it’s not being focused on this month.
(Remember that you review your Long Range To-Do List each month when you’re setting next month’s LoFs, so items placed there will be reviewed regularly.)
Items on your Long Range To-Do List can also help guide you in determining what needs your focus. If there’s a heavy grouping of items around a particular area, that’s a pretty good indicator that that area probably needs to become an LoF.
What if your answer isn’t yes or no, but rather “maybe, kind of, sort of”?
If your answer is “well, this item kiiiiind of fits one of my LoFs, so I could put it on my list for the month…”
…it probably belongs on the Long-Range To-Do List.
You won’t have to convince yourself of the items that really do fit in your LoFs.
Any time you have to do mental gymnastics to finagle an item into an LoF, that item almost certainly doesn’t actually further your progress toward that goal or intention.
Keep in mind that cleverly talking yourself into including items that don’t truly fit your LoFs defeats the whole purpose.
And the “whole purpose” of those LoFs isn’t to be a buzzkill. It’s to be a litmus test for what to-do items truly contribute to your progress in a particular area.
Progress. Toward what really matters to you.
Don’t cleverly talk yourself out of that!
Get started with your LoFs
You don't have to wait until the beginning of a new month to use the Locus of Focus method.
And you don't have to wait “until everything on your list is done” to start using it. (Waiting until “everything on the list is done” is a procrastination technique.)
Determine the 1-3 projects, intentions, or directions that matter most to your business right now, and start using those to help channel and focus your time, attention, and efforts. They'll become your LoFs, and they'll act as your litmus tests, your gatekeepers against distraction, overwhelm, and decision paralysis.